Inclusive Innovation – A Product Managers Guide


Inclusive Innovation – A Product Managers Guide

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is a term that seems to be backed by an endless number of definitions. All of the numerous definitions hint at the same thing but perhaps most simply put:

 Accessibility is the word used to describe whether a product (for example, a website, appliance, piece of hardware, application) can be used by people of all abilities and disabilities.”

Products that are highly accessible I like to call ‘user agnostic’ i.e. any user regardless of anything can use a product to accomplish the same tasks as any other user of the product. Accessibility tends to be a non-functional measure of the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. However, accessibility is more than a requirement or something you do in order to stay compliant, it should be a pre-requisite…a consideration baked into your core UX, development and overall delivery process – more on this later.

As many of the readers are product managers for digital web experiences and applications it’s worth focusing in on what accessibility means in the specific context of the web. As we all know the web is constantly evolving, but perhaps what many of us are unaware of is the amount of focus that goes into improving the accessibility of the web. There’s a vast array of tools available to us that allow us to make the web a place that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with and contribute to. 

Why should I care?

Caption: Accessibility Sketchnotes

The web and the digital products we use are an important resource (or should I say commodity?) in many aspects of life: education, employment, commerce, and more. It pains me to write this as it’s so obvious but accessibility is so important because it’s fundamental that we present equal access and opportunity to those with disabilities.

An accessible website also benefits older users of your product, those with lower literacy or those who aren’t fluent in the language used by your product, people with slow internet connections or using older technologies such as those using your product in developing countries. An accessible product is directly correlated to an awesome product and a great user experience. If you own a website you should also forget about appearing high in search rankings if your website is not accessible to the diverse array of users trying to access you website – whether they be disabled or simply using a mobile device; Google takes it very seriously. Good on Google!

Now if the above doesn’t make it clear why accessibility is important then maybe the fact that many countries around the world are addressing digital access issues through legislation. Countries and governments are doing this in a number of ways:

  • Existing human/civil rights legislation

    In the UK for example The Equality Act 2010 and The Code of Practice: Rights of Access – Goods, Facilities, Services and Premises document published by the government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission collectively protect against discrimination of the disabled and impaired and encourage the equality in the provision of just about everything, including your digital product.

  • Support and Reference WCAG Guidelines

    Another way countries and governments have shown support for web accessibility is by supporting and adopting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 by referring to the guidelines in their own legislation. WCAG 2.0 is a recommendation guide published and maintained by the Web Accessibility Initiative. The Web Accessibility Initiative is a project by theWorld Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – an international community that sets out to define web standards; led by Tim Beners-Lee the modern day founder of the world wide web. The WCAG 2.0 has been widely accepted as the definitive guidelines on how to create accessible websites. It’s a must read document for any product manager or individual involved in the creation of digital products – take the time to acquaint yourself with the basics of this guideline.

  • Define Own Guidelines on Accessible Web Design

    Again, taking the UK as a leading example. One of the big criticisms of the WCAG 2.0 is that it’s not easy to interpret for the generalist. The British Standard Institute released the Web Accessibility Code of Practice in Dec, 2010. It describes what is expected from websites to comply with the UK Disability Discrimination Act 1995, making websites accessible to and usable by disabled people. The standard has been designed to introduce non-technical professionals to improved accessibility, usability and user experience for disabled and impaired people. It serves to give guidance on process rather than on technical and design issues for those new to the subject.

Circling back to why you should care…quite frankly it’s morally and ethically wrong to discriminate and there’s legislation to reinforce this. The re-iterate Google’s mantra – don’t be evil, be inclusive! Ok I made up the second half of that. 

Accessibility as an Opportunity for Innovation

Global Accessibility Awareness Day

You may not have the date entered into your Google Calendar or a reminder set on your smartphone but on May 21st each year it is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. The purpose of the day is to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) accessibility and users with different disabilities. Digital inclusivity isn’t about one day of effort in the year. But it’s great to have a focus for this essential and, frankly, exciting area of activity.

For people with disabilities – visual, auditory, mobility-related, cognitive – the Internet has demolished many of the barriers presented by the physical world. The Internet is not simply enabling people with disabilities to shop, socialize and organize daily life for themselves from a laptop or phone. The latest generation of innovative technology is capable of providing seamless, real-time translation of data to make the world rich, immediate and interactive like never before.

There are examples of accessibility innovation in products all around us; it’s truly exciting! For example personal, wearable devices such as Google Glass mean that the live world can be recognized and described. Imagine a blind person using their smartphone camera (or wearing Glass) and receiving a description of what is around them. Guess what, that technologies been around for a while for instance TapTapSee and LookTel uses camera phones to scan, recognise and name objects such as packaged goods, soda cans, money, CDs, and landmarks like signs and store fronts. Perhaps my favorite product that I’ve stumbled across ever connects visually impaired uses with the masses – crowdsourcing sighted people to lend those impaired or blind some assistance. It’s name is Be My Eyes and I highly recommend you sign up and begin using the app. It’s a beautiful concept.

Consider the scenario of someone with dyslexia or learning disabilities looking at text and hearing it spoken back. Or the possibility of combining Google Glass with real-time voice recognition, so that a deaf person can have live subtitles with them on their personal visual display wherever they go. Emotion recognition software has already proved to be of immense help to autistic people when attempting to identify people’s emotions and is similarly helpful to people with vision impairment.

There’s a danger in thinking about accessibility that we limit ourselves by focusing only on compliance. Digital inclusivity is seen simply as a standard or process to comply with – when it should be an opportunity to reach out to, engage with, and innovate for, a significant, and growing, segment of our user base. Because the thing is that accessibility is not a ‘niche’ area. In ageing Western populations, increasing numbers of users have diminishing vision, hearing and movement – necessitating the ability to access online services in different ways. Accessible experiences are not just for users with disabilities – they’re good for any user who wants to access content when they want, wherever they want, via the interfaces, inputs and outputs they want. Thinking inclusively creates great user experiences for everyone.

Brain Dump, wouldn’t it be novel if there was some way to virtually access assistive technologies and devices the same way we can access mobile devices, think Device Anywhere or Clearlefts Device Lab but for screen readers and the like…you read it here first!

How To Create Digitally Inclusive Products

There are so many top 10 heuristics and best practices for making good accessible experiences. Most are focused at developers and quite expansive – specifically talking to the technical implementation required to make a website or application accessible to those using assistive devices and similar.

  • Include Accessibility Considerations In Personas

    • Persona’s are a very important means of creating products that put the users of your product at the centre of the design and delivery process. Persona’s focus you on the needs of your users and make sure you and your team stay grounded to the actual users of your product, which will include disabled and impaired users and thus we arrive at ‘inclusive personas’ (I love this term). A Web for Everyone, provides some pretty awesome examples of disabled users that you may want to leverage to inform your products persona’s in order to ensure you and your team stay anchored to the needs of these important users. It’s a solid starting point for creating a product that can be used equally as well by everyone regardless of their ability. A coupe of old but timeless resources for further reading include Dive Into Accessibility and UI Access.
  • Challenge Your Assumptions About Disabled Users

    • There’s lots of sketchy data on accessibility and disabilities but there’s also a few trusted sources too and when you dig into the data its mind-boggling if not insightful. I think the first assumption about accessibility is that disabled users represent the minority – this really isn’t the case. In 2012 it was estimated that in the US 18.7% of the population has some form of disability and 12.6% had a severe disability (Source: Interactive Accessibility). A second common assumption about disabled users is that they’re not tech savvy and represent basic users of your website – so wrong. Steve Jobs was creating some of the most flawless user experiences and products in his mid 50’s an age in which 28% of the population will have some kind of disability; Steve himself was visually impaired. Finally, accessibility is more than about the visually impaired users – theses users may represent a large percentage of impaired users but you also need to considerate of those with learning disabilities, physical, speech, motor neurone and cognitive disabilities. There’s an array of disabilities and impairments that you should familiarise yourself with.
  • Keep It Simple

    • It’s impossible to know everything about accessibility. Even in our website there’s so much more we can do to improve accessibility and the amount of information on the subject is vast but what we can do is know about the basic heuristics, principles and considerations that underpin accessible experiences and keep that at the forefront of our product development efforts:

      Functional illiteracy – are we using unnecessarily complex verbiage Are we providing language selection where necessary? Are we using non-literal text i.e. sarcasm, metaphors etc? Red/Green colour blindness is the most common type of colour blindness, are you using the colours side by side to show confirm/delete actions? Dyslexia is aided by off white backgrounds, have we factored this into our designs? Have we built in support for keyboard navigation and actions?

  • Make It A Shared Responsibility

    • There’s no one common approach to product development but one thing that you can make common in your product development process is that accessibility is a shared responsibility:

      Design and UX: Ensure that design is considerate of common design accessibility principles and best practices. The WCAG 2.0 is a great starting point but I suggest you interpret the document in your own way to create your own design checklist. A fantastic list of design considerations and heuristics can be found here at Rosenfeld Media, I’m a massive fan of this checklist. Good design and UX is the first step towards great and considerate accessibility.

      Content: Different organisations have different people/functions look after their content but regardless of who has final say over the copy and nomenclature on your website you need to ask yourself is the content clear, literal and simple? Do you images have captions or text, audio or video alternatives?

      Development: Are you using HTML5? It’s new tags include <figure> and <figcaption> to make images more meaningful to those using screenreaders. Then there’s a the <audio> and <video> tags that allow you to provide audio and video media without the need for a browser plugin (note, not all HTML5 capabilities are supported across all browsers). Perhaps most importantly with HTML5 we are now able to elements to convey that same document structure to screen readers and voice recognition software, to allow users to easily navigate to those areas of the page. There are also special Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA)roles called landmark roles that serve the same purpose. Clarissa Peterson’s blog is a great place to read more on this and we recommend you definitely look more into ARIA. There’s so many resources developers can use to educate themselves on developing. for accessibility.

  • Put yourself in your users position

    • Use your product the same way a disabled user may use your product i.e. try out an assistive device such as a JAWs screenreader (I like to pop into my local university to get my hands on such an assistive device). Easier still, reach into your pocket and grab your iPhone – the phone is littered with amazing functionality for impaired users, now try using your device to perform simple every day tasks using features such as voice over or using custom gestures and head movements. It will give you a humbling appreciation. Take Charlie Perrins advise and code without a mouse to get a perspective of how your users navigate and interact with your product.
  • Test for Accessibility

    • It’s important to note that assistive technologies such as screen readers or speech recognition software don’t all work exactly the same much in the same way not all browsers render a webpage the same, and you also should test your product with different assistive technologies much like your test a webpage with different browsers and devices. We mentioned Appl’es vast array of accessibility technologies you can use for testing on Apple products and for Windows products a common tool to use is Non Visual Desktop Access, which is free to use and emulates a screen reader.
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss it

    • Speaking to impaired or disabled users about their impediments and difficulties using your product shouldn’t be a taboo topic. If you’re inclusive and design for accessibility all users regardless of ability will be more than willing to help inform your design and development – you do user research and listen to user feedback…well guess what? Disable and impaired users are part of your user base too – speak to them!
  • Make Accessibility a Part of Your Definition of Ready

    • Such a simple solution. If your operating using an agile methodology it’s likely that you’re writing user stories and that your user stories have a ‘definition of ready’ i.e. a list of things that must be satisfied in order for your user story to be considered ready. Why not make accessibility considerations i.e. alt text defined, captions defined etc a part of your DOR?
  • Keep Learning

    • There’s too many cool resources on the web that you are never far from something educational on the topic of accessibility! A few of my favorites:

Be The Change You Want To See


Global Accessibility Awareness Day (#GAAD) and this blog post help raise awareness but really the future of inclusive innovation and equal, accessible products is in your hands. The hands of the scrum teams who build the products, the product owners who define their vision, the test engineers who verify it meets the acceptance criteria of its users – users that are both able and disabled. Who knows? Maybe this post will make you think a little differently about accessibility – and sow the seeds of ideas that are as inclusive as they are innovative.


About Author

A product manager with extensive experience in the Fin Tech industry and co-founder of Startup hustler, tech junkie, user experience obsessed with a love for bulldogs!

Leave A Reply